November 14, 2023
Richland Center: A changing and recreational landscape
Bridget Cooke Member Utilities
This article was first published by MEUW Live Lines, Volume 72, Issue 11.
City Utilities of Richland Center Superintendent Scott Gald and Office Manager Vanessa Mueller have seen a lot of change in the last few years.
The office has adopted new billing and accounting software, adding technology for users to check their billing information. The Richland Hospital Inc. is planning a new facility over three parcels of land totaling slightly more than 40 acres along Highway 14. Two new apartment buildings are being considered, which means 90 new meters for the utility to service in addition to the current 3,000.
“There is a lot going on here, especially as developers take notice of the area,” Mueller said.
Work has been consistent in both changing out poles and moving overhead transmission lines underground.
“We’re constantly upgrading our system,” Gald said. “We’re also evaluating automated metering for the whole community, with our largest customers already using it since we began working on it two years ago.”
While Gald said a new hospital and housing construction would be “awesome,” other changes have been less expected. Like the shuttering of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland campus in May. Though the closure of the local educational fixture has allowed for workers to be housed there by their factory employers.
Those workers and their families, largely migrants from other countries, have built a community there. They serve as a vital workforce in a time when workers are generally in short supply, especially for laborious hourly work in manufacturing businesses. And they continue to use the electricity, so none of the meters on campus have been eliminated from overall service, Gald said.
“It was a hit when the campus closed, but a private owner came in and took over,” Gald said. “Now those employees have made the space their own and they have a place where they can be picked up daily by transportation provided by that company to get to work.”
On a larger scale, the community has benefited from that sense of community with growth in small businesses, like multiple new restaurants. Local staple, meat processing and sales shop Richland Locker recently moved to a new space next door to the building it had inhabited for decades, providing more items on a bigger scale, much like a local market, Gald said.
Even as the landscape around them, the Ocooch Mountains of the center of the driftless area of the state, stand firm as barriers of rock and trees, the population of 5,000 is adapting to modern needs. The expansion of broadband internet has connected the city and county to other parts of the state and even throughout the country, making remote work more possible. Mueller said residents can enjoy the recreational options in a small city while also having their desired job as working from home has become commonplace. The access to better internet also bolsters education for local families with students.
The area is largely for outdoor enthusiasts. Pine River runs through town. Access to the body of water allows for kayaking, which Mueller said she enjoys frequently, or fishing and canoeing. Others take to the woods to search for the perfect prey during different seasons of hunting throughout the year. Some engage in nature through exercise like traversing a bike or walking trail, or even a mountain bike trail. When snow falls, people can be found cross country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing.
A notable feature is the local drive-in movie theater. With just one screen, Starlite Theater shows double features even in cooler months. October hosts Halloween favorites while November and December shows include holiday classics. Starlite has an accompanying brick and mortar theater dubbed Center Cinema in the center of the city that plays similar, but sometimes more current, films.
Founded in 1851, Richland Center has two industrial parks.
“It’s a tremendous load for a municipality of this size,” said Jim Schwingle, WPPI Energy senior energy services manager for the city.
The businesses there specialize in food and foundry products. The scenic area hosts community events, like Thunderfest over the Fourth of July weekend. There is also a self-guided walking tour to take in the richness of the architectural designs within the historic neighborhoods. Frank Loyd Wright was born in the city in the late 19th century and the only building designed by him there is the A.D. German Warehouse, completed in 1921.
Other notable historical moments included a visit from President John F. Kennedy, who gave a speech on the steps of the Park Hotel, built in 1873. Former president George W. Bush, in a 2004 bid for reelection, spoke to supporters at Richland High School. Richland Center became an important location for voting rights in Wisconsin. Suffragists Laura Briggs James, Julia Bowen and other residents founded the Richland Center Women’s Club in early 1882 and became an influential move organization in the state. Susan B. Anthony even visited the city in 1886. Laura James’ daughter, Ada James, helped found the Political Equality League in 1909, which also advocated for women’s rights.
Richland Center is where the creation of a Children’s Welfare Board took place. The Richland Center Telephone Company, founded there in 1918 as part of the GTE Corporation, which was the largest independent telephone company in the country at the time, eventually became Verizon Communications at the turn of this century.
Natural landscapes serve as background for cultural stops, like crafts at a night market, theatre, musical performances, a variety of dining options, wineries and a local brewery.
The utility has a record of trying out items still seen as too new by many, from LED lights to electric vehicle chargers. One of their EV chargers is now 10 years old, even as the prevalence of electric vehicles on roads is still slowly growing in Wisconsin. Though having them definitely bolsters tourism, Mueller said. If people know they can charge during a road trip, they park their vehicle and peruse some of the downtown shops while they wait.
City Utilities of Richland Center not only has workers in the office adopting new technologies, it also has five young lineworkers willing to take on new challenges. That includes offering a helping hand. The fleet has aided neighboring communities when they need it, from the tornado that hit Boscobel in August 2021 to rotating in at Wisconsin Rapids over eight days after strait line winds took out vital energy infrastructure. Richland Center also helps nearby Muscoda, notably with storm clean up, Gald said.
The community is one that fosters giving back.
The Greater Richland Area Cancer Elimination, or GRACE, fund committee solicits successful local donations annually, raising money through fundraisers throughout the year. One includes the sale of painted fire hydrants, which are supplied by the city water department. City Utilities of Richland Center is a locally owned, municipal electric utility which also oversees the service of water and wastewater systems.
Staff in the electric department help the Rotary Club each November. For four days each holiday season, they help hang festive lights in the park. The attraction brings in roughly 10,000 people. The work, which includes maintenance in the event something needs to be fixed, is an in-kind donation of roughly $9,000 from the utility. They help take down the lights on Jan. 1 each year.
“We really are involved because we live here too,” Mueller said. “We want everything to go well because we care about our hometown doing well just like anyone else would.”
That involvement for Gald is serving as chief of the Richland Center Fire Department. As a paid on-call volunteer department, the 45 members who show up to emergency calls serve 12 of the county’s 16 townships, spanning 310 square miles, out of their single station in the city.
“Our fire department has great support from the utility and some of our workers even serve as volunteer firefighters,” Gald said. “It’s important because we serve to make sure we can protect our residents, just like we do every day in keeping the lights on.”
Gald said the utility is proud to be recognized as a Reliable Public Power Provider, which is referred to as RP3, through the American Public Power Association. The RP3 designation, which lasts for three years, recognizes public power utilities that demonstrate proficiency in four key disciplines: reliability, safety, workforce development, and system improvement. Criteria include sound business practices and a utility-wide commitment to safe and reliable delivery of electricity. The utility is in the process of applying again for its next three-year designation.
“We’re always glad to provide reliable and affordable public power to our community,” Gald said, adding that they are also designated as a Smart Energy Provider. The Smart Energy Provider designation, also earned through the APPA, recognizes public power utilities for demonstrating a commitment to and proficiency in energy efficiency, distributed energy resources, research and development, and environmental initiatives that support the goal of providing safe, reliable, low-cost, and sustainable electric service.
“We have to be smarter to make sure the people who live here have the energy they need to just get through their everyday lives.”